Why Should Anyone Die in a Car, Ever?

Stop pretending it's a fact of life. It's unacceptable, and should be thought of that way.

Car Safety Deaths
Keystone/Getty Images

People die in cars. I know you don’t want to talk about it, or think about it, but it’s true. In fact, more than a million people die in cars worldwide every year. I’m going to take a strong and outrageous stand right now and say that’s too many. If you’re one of those people who argues—something I’ve heard many times since I started this ludicrous car-writing gig—that those deaths are the inevitable price for the freedom that driving and car ownership provide, then you’re pretty much an idiot. Why should anyone die in a car, ever?

Somewhere along the road of this magical automotive journalism journey, after my share of track days and driving over Icelandic glaciers, I took the red pill. Suddenly, I woke up in the Car Matrix, screaming, realizing that I was providing PR cover for the grimmest abbatoir in human history. Millions of people have died in cars since 2008, and almost none of them on purpose. That’s not exactly a point of pride for the industry. For a few years there, the common refrain was “deaths are declining.” But this year, deaths were actually up eight percent in the United States. Approximately 3,000 more people died in cars in 2015 than in 2014 in the USA. Those people didn’t die heroically for freedom; they died violently on the way to work, or to the fabric store, or to school, or wherever. Again, that’s unacceptable.

But other than continually ranting about this to my eye-rolling wife and son, who got tired of this shtick long ago, what can I, or you, or anyone else who gives a crap do about this, do? The answer, on an individual basis, is pretty much don’t drive, but that’s an impossibility for many, myself included. So where can we lay the blame?

The fault doesn’t lie with the government, at least not really. The last eight years of federal car policy haven’t been as forceful as I’d like. Though there needs to be more public education about the dangers of driving, beyond “don’t text and drive” billboards, the feds are at least encouraging and funding self-driving and other advanced safety initiatives. Europe is annoyingly ahead of the curve, with cities talking about banning cars altogether in the central districts. But it can happen American-style, too: The Army is experimenting with a fleet of self-driving electric trucks (it must be true, I read about it on trucks.com) so that should be good enough for the rest of the United States.

You also can’t totally fault the car manufacturers. They’re still offering a full menu of planet- and people-destroying vehicles. But you don’t expect Honda and Ford to say, “Welp, that’s it, people are dying, we quit.” Every carmaker is aware of the problem and is at least trying to find a solution. All cars, no matter which manufacturer they’re from, are being engineered to communicate with one another in a vast safety network, an Internet Of Car Things. The manufacturers are developing the tech cooperatively, under federal law.

On an individual manufacturer level, Volvo has declared that no one will die in one of its cars in the year 2020 and beyond, which seems a bit ambitious, but skøl to them for trying. Meanwhile, General Motors appears to be preparing for a world without individual car ownership at all, with a vast, soon-to-arrive fleet of self-driving electric cars. That’s the opposite of the company depicted in “Unsafe At Any Speed,” or even the company that recently covered up a rash of faulty ignition switches. Meanwhile, the smartest people in the room (or, in the case of Elon Musk, people who think they are the smartest in the room) are working on this problem at Apple, and Google, and Tesla, and secretly in their garages.

But while we wait for the tech geniuses to fix things, we’re all out on the road playing chicken. Drivers are forced to trudge along, either willfully ignoring the dangerous reality of what’s around us, not caring, or trying to block it out lest we go mad. In the day-to-day, the future of cars seems very far away.

Of all the news that’s upset me recently, nothing struck home more than the fact that SUV sales are way up in the last couple of years, because people think big cars keep them safe. But they don’t, and I have 35,000 reasons why that’s true. This isn’t a safe system, it’s a national health crisis, $1.93 a gallon be damned.

While I often find myself wishing for some sort of glorious future, I live in Texas, in the dystopian end-times automotive present. We all have to drive, or at least most of us do, and the roads are getting more crowded, more dangerous, and more stressful. It’s not like we’re all whipping around in awesome Miatas or Panameras, extending a glorious middle finger to the self-driving electric car scolds. People are risking their precious lives in Chevy Traverses or old shitbox Infinitis, cars that, in any equation, aren’t worth the ultimate toll.

If you have to haul a lot of annoying kids to useless activities, which most of us do, something like a self-driving electric Chrysler Pacifica minivan makes much more sense. I’d rather skewer myself on a barge-pole than own an electric Chrysler minivan, but there are cars coming that suit my equally terrible tastes. Or maybe I won’t have to own a car at all. Five, ten, twenty years from now, when the time comes for people to make a different choice, it will be available if they want.

Meanwhile, though, we have to stay alive, no matter what occurs. I once had a car writer tell me, with horrifying cynicism, that car deaths are inevitable because you “have to thin the herd somehow.” Be careful when you try to distinguish yourself from that herd. Car deaths know no national, race, or class boundaries. We’ve lost many great people, and many mediocre ones, in cars. And lest you think being a “car guy” makes you immune, let me remind you that Paul Walker, automotive fandom’s greatest celebrity friend, won’t be appearing in the new Fast And Furious movie. Because he died in a car.

So drive carefully, my friends. Together, let’s reduce the chances of getting plugged in this dangerous game of automotive roulette we all play. I’ll be out there in traffic with you, hoping for a better world. Hopefully, I’ll live to see it happen.